Acupuncture, considered to be one of the oldest traditional healing practices in the world, is an alternative medicine therapy based in traditional Chinese medicine. The general principle of Chinese medicine is that physical health is maintained when the two opposing forces of yin and yang are in balance within the body. When there is a lack of balance between yin and yang the flow of qi (vital energy) is blocked and disease or other health problems result. An acupuncturist uses thin needles to puncture the skin in specific points along meridians or pathways with the goal of improving the flow of the body’s vital energy or qi.
Acupuncture for Pain
Acupuncture is one of the most widely used and widely studied forms of complementary and alternative medicine. Over 3 million Americans had been to an acupuncturist in the last year and pain or joint problems were the main reasons 7 out of 10 were getting treatment.
Does Acupuncture Work to Treat Pain?
- The Placebo Effect: In acupuncture studies patients may receive a ‘placebo’ of simulated acupuncture (fake acupuncture) to compare results with the patients that receive acupuncture. A review of studies showed something interesting: the patients that received fake acupuncture had significantly less pain after ‘treatment’ than patients that had no treatment at all, and the difference between patients that got ‘real’ acupuncture and those that got ‘fake’ acupuncture was smaller.
- Your attitude towards acupuncture may make a difference: Four studies found that patients that expected acupuncture treatment to help their pain had more pain relief after treatment than those that didn’t expect it to work. 
- Lack of consistency in studies makes it hard to make general conclusions. Some studies used different types of acupuncture, different types of comparison groups (no treatment, ‘fake’ treatment) and different ways of measuring results.
What Science Currently Says
Low-Back Pain: There are conflicting studies and results meaning no definite conclusion. However, the American Pain Society and the American College of Physicians recommend considering acupuncture when conventional therapy isn’t working.
Headaches/Migraines: Conflicting results. Some studies found that acupuncture reduced migraines and tension headaches while others found no difference.
Neck Pain: Acupuncture decreased patients’ pain level more than simulated acupuncture did.
Other Pain Conditions: Acupuncture has been studied for effectiveness in relieving pain in carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, menstrual cramps, pregnancy and TMJ dysfunction. Again there are often different conclusions reached by different studies or researchers.
In all studies the patients all received the standard care for their pain and disorder, often pain medication and physical therapy. Acupuncture is added as a complementary treatment.
The National Institute of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) states that acupuncture is generally considered safe when performed correctly. Many patients with chronic pain have already tried traditional treatments and continue to suffer. Acupuncture with the goal of reducing pain may be an alternative treatment to explore.
Before starting any new treatment be sure to discuss it with your physician or health professional to ensure its suitability to your diagnosed disorder, illness or condition and to prevent unforeseen complications. This article is meant to provide you with information and ideas and is not intended to treat, cure or diagnose any medical or mental health condition.